Power of the Group; A Coaching Conversation with Professor Michael Preston

When I walk into my classroom full of drivers at the racetrack, I don’t know much about them, and they don’t know me or each other. Tension is too strong a word to describe the atmosphere, but it is accurate to say that there is plenty of performance anxiety in a room full of people who have never had license to drive as fast as they can.

The basic setup of a track day is that students alternate between driving a 25 minute session on the track with an in-car instructor and then come to the classroom to debrief, talk about technique, and get prepared to do it all over again. Groups are determined by experience levels. My students are the NASA (National Auto Sport Association) club’s first timers, and folks who are newly ready to drive without an in-car instructor. My goal is that our students get the most out of their high-performance driving education. I want them to learn a lot, have a great time, and get home safe with their fenders intact so they can brag about how good they can drive.

To achieve my goals, it’s always about aligning my students’ goals with mine and my organization’s goals. A key to the process is to get them to identify as a group. It doesn’t matter that my students come with different ability levels and a broad mix of vehicles. What all of us at the track have in common is a desire to learn to be better drivers.

Generally, the point of going to a racetrack is to see who can do a lap of the track in the least amount of time. Student on-track run group sessions are not timed, but there is still pressure around who is passing and who is getting passed on the track. I feel that I have a responsibility to relieve some of the students’ performance anxiety and start doing that by reframing the situation from each driver against the rest, to being interested in learning together with each other’s help. The point is that my students come to their track day expecting to learn how to be better drivers on their own but discover that they can learn more by being in alignment with the shared group goal.

The conversation about coaching that I had with my friend and mentor, Professor Michael Preston, about the lessons he shared from his work as an organizational management consultant with Grant Thornton and as professor of management at Columbia Business School has inspired me to be a better high-performance driving coach. Whether it was an organizational issue Michael faced with a client or enlightening MBA students Michael was able to show how business challenges that seem unique to each organization on the surface come down to some broad categories like a failure to communicate or not setting a clear course. Recognizing that one’s trouble is a common issue faced by others releases knowledge about the power of alignment within an organization and the classroom.

Michael and I have known each other for ten years. He recently retired from teaching at Columbia Business School after his prior career in consulting. I had the pleasure of supporting Michael by bringing speakers to his two classes, Managing the Growing Business, and Family Business Management. His students. Like my students who bring a variety of cars and experiences to the track, his MBA students came from diverse circumstances and types of businesses. Some were in startups, and others were from more established enterprises. Some students had service business experience, and others were from product companies.

When I asked Michael about his style and the highs and lows of teaching at the Business School, he spoke to me about how freeing it was for the students to realize that they were part of a group rather than alone in their journeys. Building great group (team) dynamics, and establishing a healthy culture is a key element for coaching, but it can’t be imposed. A healthy culture needs to grow from within a team or group, be it in the classroom or conference room, and be nurtured by the coach.

As I just noted, Michael’s students had a mix of experiences in different types of businesses, but just like my would-be Mario Andretti’s and Danica Patrick’s his business school students were there to learn tools they could apply to make themselves better at what they did. And as Michael told me, it’s not that he felt happy because of his accomplishment with a teachable moment. Rather, it was the satisfaction he felt when he could see that his students applied their acquired tools to help each other as members of a group with a shared experience. As an observer, it was eye-opening to see his ability to develop a healthy team culture over the course of a semester.

With the help of their in-car instructors my students learn to work together so that someone with a less powerful or not as nimble handling car doesn’t frustrate a quicker car and driver. In the classroom, the traffic management techniques our instructors teach are reinforced by having the students get to know their fellow group members. It’s not that so-and-so in the red car, it’s Kim in the Corvette or Dave in the Honda. The curated discussion that I lead about who is doing what, on which part of the track is done in order to develop the same type of healthy culture that Michael was so good at fostering in his classes. I provide the framework and give my students the space to help with the learning. In addition to wanting the students to get home safely, I want them to have so much fun that they come back for more track time and progress from novices to coaches and racers like I did. I am grateful for the instructors and classroom leaders who still help me chase the limits of my friend friction.